— A silicon-based microchip that generates laser beams has been developed by researchers at Intel and the University of California, Santa Barbara, both in the US.
The hybrid silicon-indium phosphide chip could transfer data between computer components much more quickly by using optical fibres rather than ordinary computer wires, its developers say.
Although the chip is several years away from commercialisation, it could kick-start a revolution in computing and communications, by cutting hardware costs and even leading to completely new architectures, the researchers claim.
The "electrically pumped hybrid laser" was created by sandwiching together indium phosphide, which generates light in response to a current, and silicon. The key step is a low-temperature bonding technique that does not damage the silicon circuitry involved. Electrically charged oxygen is used to deposit a layer of oxide on each material, which creates a bond when the two are pressed together.
Applying a current to the indium phosphide causes it to emit photons. These are fed into channels etched in the silicon beneath, which act as waveguides, generating laser beams. Linking laser pulses to silicon circuitry should make it possible to transmit data between microchips in the form of light.
This could lead to a boost in data transfer speeds by removing the bottleneck at the end of long-distance fibre-optics pipes. It could also lead to new types of supercomputer that shunt data between high-speed processors as laser pulses.
"Photonics has been a low-volume cottage industry," John Bowers, who led the work at UCSB told The New York Times. "Everything will change and laser communications will be everywhere, including fibre to the home."
Thousands of lasers
The researchers put 26 individual lasers on their experimental chip. Eventually, they hope to create components featuring hundreds or thousands of lasers. Although the experimental chip stopped working at temperatures higher than 37°C, the researchers believe they can overcome this by fine-tuning the manufacturing process.
"This is a wonderful breakthrough,'' Alan Willner, at the University of Southern California told Mercury News. "If you go back five years, you would find very few people believed in silicon photonics. Intel has debunked the myth that silicon is not good for photonics.''
Details of the work will be published in the next edition of the journal Optics Express.
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